It’s difficult for us to get the sense of what Jesus was telling us when He identified Himself as the Good Shepherd because we have no experience of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. The closest analogy would be, I suppose, our relationship with our pets, particularly with our pet dogs. We know of the bonding that exists there. Think of our times spent with them, how they recognize our voices and how they have come to know that we love them. They are like family to us.
Back in the time of Jesus there was a deep relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. Days and nights were spent together in remote and solitary places. Predatory animals sought to kill and devour sheep and because that was so the shepherds closely watched and protected their sheep. When they heard the voice of their shepherd they knew they were safe and they stayed close to him and followed him.
It’s easy, therefore, to understand why God used that imagery to express His relationship with us and why Psalm 23 is such a favorite. You remember it, I’m sure:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
The title shepherd is given also to those who act for God here on earth. The word “Pastor” denotes one who shepherds, a person acting as one of God’s agents shepherding God’s flock.
Not all who did so were good, and the same is true today. Along with the image of the good shepherd we know that their opposites have been among us. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel hurled a terrible accusation against evil shepherds.
“Shepherds, the Lord Yahweh says this: Disaster is in store for the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Are not shepherds meant to feed a flock? Yet you have fed on milk, you have dressed yourselves in wool, you have sacrificed the fattest sheep, but failed to feed the flock. You have failed to make weak sheep strong, or to care for the sick ones, or bandage the injured ones. You have failed to bring back strays or look for the lost. On the contrary, you have ruled them cruelly and harshly. For lack of a shepherd they have been scattered, to become the prey of all the wild animals; they have been scattered. My flock is astray on every mountain and on every high hill; my flock has been scattered all over the world; no one bothers about them and no one looks for them. (Ezekiel 34:1ff)
As Christians we know that God has fulfilled His promise in giving us His only Son as our shepherd. The first images of Christ painted on the walls of the catacombs in Rome were pictures of the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb on His shoulders. Later on, particularly in the Dark Ages, the image most often used was that of Christ crucified. The primary image employed by Christians was, however, that of the Good Shepherd, something that should capture our attention.
Modern men and women reject with contempt the analogous role of the sheep and the idea of a flock under the care of a shepherd. Hyper-individuality controls today… belonging is suspect. Moderns even reject God’s voice. But at what cost? The price being paid is terrible. Think of how many people around us allow themselves to be passively led by all kinds of manipulation and concealed persuasion. Republicans are told what they should think… and Democrats also. Young adults, afraid of being out of step, are too often conditioned and kidnapped by advertising. The fashion industry tells us what to wear, particularly teens, and the food industry tells us all what to eat. The younger among us twitter and tweet each other to do this, that, or the other thing. The slogan “Everybody does it” becomes the moral norm and the latest poll results guide our political thinking.
Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, proposes that, with Him, we can experience liberation. To belong to His flock is not to fall into the categories imposed on us by this world but rather to be preserved from this world’s manipulations says St. Paul. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17) This is not the freedom of do whatever we feel like doing, but rather the freedom to choose the good and to do what is good. Is it any wonder, then, that the political and religious authorities in Jerusalem felt threatened by Jesus Christ and conspired to get rid of Him? His message brought freedom from their power.
It is in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God that our true personhood is revealed, along with our unique richness and true destiny. The sons and daughters of God emerge, even though hidden now, of which the second letter of this Sunday speaks: “Beloved, now we are children of God, though we do not yet know what we shall be.”
So the question arises: “To whom do I belong, and to what do I belong?” By our nature, we cannot live in isolation and totally alone. We have a need, a good need, to belong. So, then, whose voice to I listen to? Whom do I follow? There is no lack of voices telling us how to act, what to eat, what to buy, and how we should vote. And there is no lack of opportunities to engage in various behaviors. The mass media and the entertainment industries make sure of that… and they take your money to boot!
I am the good shepherd, Jesus declared. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
To whom do I belong, and to what do I belong? By our nature, we cannot live in isolation and totally alone. We have a need, a good need, to belong. So, whose voice do I listen to? Whom do I follow? We live in torn and highly polarized communities and our struggle is to forgive, love, and heal. That is the work of our Good Shepherd, to forgive, love, and heal. Because we belong to Christ, that is the shepherding we must likewise give to all those around us, particularly to those who are lost. We are called to carry them on our shoulders back home to God.